In the European Championship 2016, the hosts France rated among the teams to beat, and rightly so.
They were playing in front of a supportive home crowd, had more than a number of young stars and their performance on the field showed they were no fluke.
Eventually though, they failed to break through Portugal’s well-organized defence in a tightly fought final at Stade de France. It was a slugfest of a match, with emotions running high and officials booking 10 players.
Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo went down with injury in the 25th minute, but the Seleccao, instead of slouching and crying of their misfortune, rallied around the big hole left by the captain, and Eder’s 109th minute goal broke the hearts of more than 70,000 French souls watching live, and the millions watching on television.
Such a wonderful start, but such a sorrowful end.
But fortunately for the Les Blues faithful, the generation of players who can bring glory to the blue, white and red have not outgrown each other yet. They are still around their primes and can go for glory as soon as France get a spot in next year’s World Cup in Russia.
It is easier said than done, though, since France are in danger of missing outright qualification in the group stage of the World Cup qualifiers. They are level with Sweden on points on top of their group, but the Blue-Yellow defeated Les Blues 2-1 at Friends Arena in Solna in their last qualifying fixture, and have a superior goal difference after six games.
Only the top team can get outright berth to next year’s World Cup, while the second-place team will battle other runners-up for spots in the quadrennial event in Russia. All national teams have four fixtures left, but France’s fate are not in their hands, since Sweden have the upper hand in goals.
Didier Deschamps should thank his lucky stars every night, because he has tools to mount a serious challenge to the world, and the only thing left for him to do is to find the perfect mix of players to recreate their successful, even though short, run in Euro 2016.
Of course, the squad should be centred on forward Antoine Griezmann, who is only 26 years old, and has 16 goals in 43 caps for Les Blues. Dimitri Payet will be 31 when the World Cup begins, but he is one of the late bloomers who hit his stride just a few years ago. Captain Hugo Lloris, too, will be on the wrong side of 30, but as a goalkeeper, that is not much of a problem, since Italy legend Gianluigi Buffon is 39 and is still kicking ass as the Azzurris’ shot stopper.
The French team also have a wondrous midfielder in N’Golo Kante, the backbone of the last two Premier League champion teams. And in defense they have the veteran Laurent Koscielny, Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna.
More impressively, Deschamps has a roster filled with exciting young players, who are being courted by top teams in the world.
Most famous among them is last season’s breakout star Kylian Mbappe, the 18-year-old forward who scored 26 goals in 44 games across all competitions for Monaco, including six in nine, pressure-packed Champions League fixtures. Because of his brilliant plays, big English clubs are in a race to break the bank for him, Barcelona want him to supplant their Messi-Suarez-Neymar frontline, and Real Madrid are considering selling Cristiano Ronaldo and baptize him as the new biggest Galactico.
They also have the most expensive football player in midfielder Paul Pogba, who cost Manchester United £90million last summer. They have other young fluid scorers in Anthony Martial and Kingsley Coman, and they have solid and experienced defenders in Raphael Varane, Djibril Sidibe, Benjamin Mendy and Samuel Umtiti. Pogba, Martial, Coman, Varane, Sidibe, Mendy and Umtiti are all under 25, and Griezmann is just 26 and forward Olivier Giroud is only 30.
Deschamps has the pieces, and he even has the gift of time to prepare. Now, it is for him to mix the concoction and for the players to make the chemistry work.